Questioning Hall of Fame Standards
By Tim Joyce
"I shall not today attempt further to define it; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...."
That famous statement, delivered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1973 when discussing a case involving obscenity, articulated how difficult it is to define, describe or quantify an elusive topic. This is a similar quandary that baseball Hall of Fame voters are faced with every year. While many inductees are obvious first-ballot choices, there are countless players that fire up debate regarding their merit for inclusion in Cooperstown. For every Ruth, Williams and Mays there are several in the mold of Ralph Kiner, Phil Rizzuto, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Don Sutton or Dave Parker - basically hundreds of players who straddle the borderline that separates a very good career from baseball immortality.
This is particularly the case this winter as the 2010 class (to be announced on January 6th) is without a shoo-in for this most sought after recognition. So the voters will once again traverse that merciless thin line of balancing statistics versus anecdotal evidence. It is a task that has inevitably led to contentious discussions about many who reside in the Hall and for those who were perhaps wrongfully excluded from being invited to the legacy party.
Now, the entire HOF voting process would become moot if Cooperstown adopted clear-cut statistical rules for entry. But that would be a travesty. The LPGA Hall of Fame takes this approach as there is a simple (and most difficult to achieve as a player as there are only 23 women players represented) way of judging one's worth. It is based on the number of major tournaments and awards accumulated throughout a career. While this can work in women's golf, it is an impossibility with a game as varied, detailed and truly intangible as baseball.
So we're left with the attempt at harmonizing statistics and anecdotal evidence for proof of greatness. Invoking Justice Stewart, there are just some players who, while not brandishing a gaudy stat line, nevertheless were intimidating forces in the game, feared by their peers and deserve a closer look for enshrinement. But unfortunately, too often this unscientific way of measuring is cast aside for the safer route of statistics. After all, we're living in a Bill James and fantasy baseball world aren't we - and though the art and science of baseball stats has advanced exponentially past the standard HR, RBI, AVG. analysis, as we seek to find the true measure of a player through slugging, on-base percentage and other crucial offensive measuring sticks, there is always that evanescent factor present when in the process of consideration.
And of course there's also that other matter, that eternal sports argument when discussing greatness - consistency versus compressed brilliance. Consistency should be a part - only a part, not the overriding factor to consider. After all it is the Hall of Fame, not an edifice of enumeration.
There are some current players who will have that rare combination of stats and intangibles when their time is up. Derek Jeter, who is sure to gather well more than 3,000 hits to augment his stellar instinctual play, is the easiest example. But he is rare.
So it often comes down to one's personality as a voter. Are they an idealist and romantic - or a pure pragmatist? Do they prefer a comet that shines bright but brief or the slow burn of a candle? Driven more by logic or instinct? Unless a directive is handed down, there is not a right or wrong way to approach the topic of HOF standards. But many, myself included, do believe that the voting has been a bit generous too often. After all, we don't want the supposed preserver of the legacy of our greatest sport to go the way of the trophy generation that we inhabit today where accolades are made meaningless due to their utter ubiquity.
I liken this process somewhat to the grueling admission procedure for an elite college. The university has to consider standard test scores as well as class standing, grades and extracurricular activities. After all, someone could have stellar grades in a non-competitive high school but just above average test scores - and vice versa. It's not dissimilar to baseball. A pitcher can compile more than 200 wins in an above average career if he stays healthy. But a pitcher who possesses a greater arsenal of weapons may be eliminated from consideration from the Hall as perhaps he couldn't surpass the .500 mark in wins.
Such is the case with Bert Blyleven, who is on this year's ballot for the 13th time (if the man with one of the greatest curveballs in history isn't nominated by 2012, he'll have to hope for inclusion via the Veteran's Committee). Consider Blyleven's numbers -- fifth all-time in strikeouts, 9th in shutouts, 27th in wins (frequently pitching for bad teams). He is the only member of the 3000 strikeout club not to have a plaque in upstate New York. So stats he does possess, except for a mediocre winning percentage.
A good comparison for Blyleven would be that of former Dodgers pitcher and 1998 inductee Don Sutton. Sutton had the advantage of pitching for a perennial playoff contender while the tall Blyleven languished for years on weak teams. Their numbers are quite similar - neither won 20 games more than once. But Blylven pitched a no-hitter which Sutton didn't and Blyleven had more strikeouts in nearly 100 fewer starts and had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. If one is judging just by statistics alone, Blyleven is clearly deserving of induction. And while Sutton was a very good pitcher - of that there is no doubt - I'd guess that if players were to ask who they dreaded facing at the plate, Sutton or Blyleven, I'm sure it'd be two-to-one in favor of Blyleven.
But this presents a slippery slope - if so many players can lay claim to similar stats and importance to their team as those who are in the Hall of Fame, then where does it end? It would ramp up a lowering of standards that would render meaningless the value of election. Are the eminently likable trio of Ralph Kiner, Phil Rizzuto and Ryne Sandberg all deserving of their residence in Cooperstown? Many would argue not.
Kiner had a few truly awesome power years but his jovial ways with the media may have played a more significant role in his inclusion. Rizzuto (who, truth be told, was more worthy as an announcer) was a key member of those incredible Yankees teams from the 40's and early 50's but if one examines his stats and value to a team, then Barry Larkin - who is eligible this year - warrants entrance through the gates. And Larkin will most likely never make the trip to Cooperstown. Sandberg - while he was a great all-around player and one of the best defensive players of his generation, his offensive numbers pale in comparison to Dave Parker (and Parker had an incredible arm as that greatest of throws in the 1979 All-Star game is the stuff of legend) and Don Mattingly, two players whose careers were interrupted - for different reasons - or else they'd be first-ballot locks.
Perhaps there should be a "submission of reasoning" of some sort for HOF voters -- if they voted for player A one year but didn't endorse player B in an ensuing year and that player B was seemingly a better ballplayer - tangibly and intangibly - then that vote would have to be explained. If there is no examination of voting then there is that clear risk of diminishing the Hall itself.
Every passionate fan and chronicler of the sport has their examples of grievous miscarriages of justice concerning the HOF when discussing their favorite player(s). The list is endless - Roger Maris, Ron Santo, Tim Raines, Gil Hodges, Joe Gordon, etc. There can be statistical and/or anecdotal justification for nearly every player who has barely missed inclusion.
Another man who has waited a long time to find out if he will ever be awarded the sports' highest honor is Andre Dawson who, along with Blyleven, has as a good a chance as ever this year with a thinner field. But though Dawson was a stellar fielder (which is overlooked far too often) and an above average hitter with strong power numbers (especially at Wrigley Field), his overall offensive prowess pales in comparison to Edgar Martinez who is also on this year's ballot for the first time. Though Dawson had more home runs and RBI's, he accomplished this over several more seasons and he had far fewer all-around powerful offensive seasons - factoring in strikeout to walk ratio, batting average, slugging, on-base percentage - than did Martinez. If I were to cast a vote this year, Edgar would be my only non-pitcher selection, to go along with Blyleven.
Yet with Martinez, there's the knock that he played the majority of his career as a DH - in fact he's the first one in such a position to be a serious contender for enshrinement. But why should this count against him? It's part of the game and no DH has ever performed better. And just marvel at this fact --- Martínez, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Manny Ramirez, and Todd Helton are the only players in history with 300 home runs, 500 doubles, a career batting average higher than .300, a career on-base percentage higher than .400 and a career slugging percentage higher than .500.
Whatever transpires with the voting from those 575 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, there is guaranteed to be controversy. But isn't that the way it's supposed to be? After all, baseball is the most conversation-inducing of all our games and passionate debate encompassing the numerical, the legal and myth-making is purely American. And lest we forget about the managers ... Whitey Herzog is getting a plaque this year - and not Billy Martin? Let the conversation commence anew.